Is Skiing Good for the Health of Glaciers, or Speeding Their Demise?

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Skiing on a glacier in Whistler B.C., CanadaPhoto: lanasphoto/Shutterstock

Closely examine any photo of the Horstman T-Bar, or any glacier other glacier T-Bar, and you’ll notice something peculiar—it sits about 10 feet higher than the surrounding snow. Examining this while reporting on the Whistler Blackcomb’s removal of the historic Horstman T-Bar, we wondered the significance of it’s elevated position with regards to snowmelt.

Coastal ski areas like Whistler Blackcomb receive deluges of black and brown carbon (smoke and soot which are the result of burning fossil fuels) coming over the Pacific, depositing itself on top of the snowpack. This carbon buildup reduces the albedo of the snowpack—or the amount of solar energy that it reflects into the atmosphere—increasing its absorption of solar radiation and quickening its melt.

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Add skiers and things get more interesting. Skier movement clears the snow and compacts its surface, constantly scraping off layers of black carbon. Compaction reduces the pore spaces between the snow crystals, so they don’t get isothermal quite as quickly. This process, combined with increased albedo, especially in places of consistent skier movement such as a T-Bar path, means that the surrounding surface snow melts away while the T-Bar path remains stable.

What no longer remains stable is the infrastructure. As for the Horstman T-Bar, without the surrounding snow supporting the towers, the surface lift became inoperable, leading to its removal.

So what does this mean for glacier health? For skiing at large? Is skiing—ski movement by individuals or by snowcats—good for the health of slopes and glaciers because it’s compacting the surface? Dr. Michele Koppes of the University of British Columbia, who studies glaciology and geomorphology, and serves on the executive board of the Canadian Geomorphology Research Group, says no—and explains why.

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“If we were just considering skiers compacting the snow, that has a temporary effect right where it’s going to slow melt out,” Dr. Koppes says. “But the bigger issue at the Horstman Glacier specifically, is that they want to preserve the snow surface through the summer ski season. So they salt the surface in the evenings. This creates an exothermic reaction, which emits heat to maintain the surface snow. And that human impact has effects that are orders of magnitude greater on the glacier health than the benefits of compaction by skiers.”

This salting effect, combined with the carbon outputs of the resort ops themselves, along with skiers traveling to and eating in the Whistler Blackcomb resort nipped that rosy picture in the bud. So how do we protect our glaciers? The only real large-scale solution is with policy. While individuals reducing consumption of fossil fuels is undeniably important, individuals make up a startlingly low percentage of greenhouse gas emissions. The 2017 Carbon Majors report detailed how just 100 companies make up over 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

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Practically, until consumer taste and consumption of fossil fuels change wildly or there is sufficient regulation and policy for climate change, the future for the world’s glaciers look grim. Dr. Koppes said that in BC, they are lucky to be home to some of the most glaciated mountains in the Americas. But by the end of the century, she says some research argues that BC could see a reduction of more than 70 percent of their mass.

When they ultimately lose their glaciers, BC and many other glaciated regions will see devastating consequences.

“Glaciers are our water towers. They store the water in the winter months and then they release it, slowly, over many years,” says Dr. Koppes. “They also release water late in the summer when it’s most needed. BC gets over 90 percent of our energy needs from hydropower. So, when you remove the glaciers, you’re creating more seasonal variability in the amount of runoff in these rivers.”

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If BC’s rivers, dams, and people had to rely on snowmelt instead of much slower glacier melt, they could see huge flooding early in the season and have almost no water left by August or September. There would also be huge ecological impacts on their salmon populations, which are both an indicator species for ecological health, and a necessity for local indigenous peoples.

“These big glaciers may seem like they’re passive parts of the landscape, but they are a big part of the ecosystem and they have huge social, ecological, and economic consequences,” says Dr. Koppes. “Their melt out has repercussions that echo from the mountaintops to the ocean bottom.”

This article originally appeared on Powder.com and was republished with permission.

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